Vulnerability and flooding: Paving the way for South Africa to deal with climate change

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Floods in Durban 2022, Photo: iSTOCK

One of the most common predictions made in relation to global warming is that, regardless of the country in which we live, we will experience extreme weather events, such as increased flooding. In a country like South Africa, where large numbers of people live in informal settlements and insecure housing, floods have the potential to cause enormous suffering.
Learning from past flooding events in order to plan for the future is therefore hugely important, a point not missed by a team of researchers comprising Dr Saul Ngarava and Dr Leocardia Zhou from the Risk and Vulnerability Science Centre (RVSC) at the University of Fort Hare (UFH) and Professor Abbyssinia Mushuje from the University’s Department of Economics. 
The team also included Dr Petronella Chaminuka from the Economic Analysis Unit at the Agricultural Research Council, testimony to the ability of Fort Hare researchers to network and collaborate with colleagues working in research councils and other entities external to the universities.
A recent flooding event in Port St Johns in April 2019, when 190mm of rain fell in 24 hours, devastated local communities. Extraordinarily high rainfall coupled with high oceanic tides that pushed the Mzimvubu River water back upstream caused the river to burst its banks resulting in low-lying settlements being cut off and hundreds of residents having to be evacuated. 
Therefore, the research team put their skills and knowledge to use and designed a semi-structured questionnaire that was administered to 195 residents in the area to determine the exposure, susceptibility and 
resilience of communities to flooding. A multiplicative method drawing on these indicators was then used to develop a Flood Vulnerability Index (FVI).
As a result of their research, the team found that Port St Johns was particularly vulnerable to the impact of floods because of its topography. People living in informal settlements were most likely to be physically and socially vulnerable because of blocked drainage systems, impermanent, poorly designed and badly constructed shelters, a lack of stormwater infrastructure, overcrowding and high levels of poverty. 
In rural settlements characterised by high levels of unemployment, low-income levels, and a lack of alternative forms of livelihood, residing on slopes and flood-prone areas meant that communities were vulnerable economically and environmentally.
In April 2022, floods in Durban resulted in more than 300 people losing their lives and once again showed how vulnerable many South African communities are to flooding and affirmed the work of the UFH team, which has now appeared as a chapter in a book published by international publisher Springer. The chapter paves the way for more research of this nature if South Africa is to prepare itself for the future.